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Jayne Letts, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Marquette and Alger Counties, is a Superior Woman. Letts, who has been with the agency since the 1980s, has grown it into a thriving organization that mentors children and helps the community one Big and Little step at a time.
By Dale Hemmila
Imagine you’ve just been named the executive director position of a local non-profit. You are eager to begin developing programs for your agency when you find out its major funding source has been eliminated — permanently.
What would you do? Throw up your hands and quit? Look for another job? Dig in and find ways to keep going? If you are Jayne Letts of Marquette, Michigan, you do the latter. And now, almost 30 years later, the organization is a vibrant, important social service agency in the community.
Letts is executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Marquette and Alger Counties. The agency serves 150 boys and girls combined between both counties, and runs on an annual budget of just $275,000.
It wasn’t always so. In the early 1990s, the agency lost a large source funding from the State of Michigan — funding it had relied on for years. Letts, newly hired, said the balance sheet looked bleak.
“We were broke,” she said recently, recalling the not-so-solvent days of the agency.
Holding a degree in political science from Northern Michigan University, Letts had the gumption and experience to consider options to keep the agency in the black.
But wasn’t she scared, at the time? “I had been in insurance sales and fund development for the Women’s Center, so, no, I wasn’t,” she said “I was just thinking if we worked really hard we could save it because it was such a good program.”
And so she did.
Using a small cash cushion, the agency created a short-term fix, which allowed Letts some time to begin working on fundraising opportunities
Their early efforts were simple, but effective, and they helped grow the pot, and also helped the agency gain community recognition. Among the first fundraising efforts was Friday night bingo. Letts and volunteers sold bingo cards, pull-off tickets, sandwiches and sodas to bring in a few bucks each week.
“We began with nothing,” Letts recalled. “After a while, we were making $30,000 a year.”
Second, the agency’s iconic and large annual fundraiser, Bowl for Kids’ Sake, was initiated and, coupled with grant money, some funding from the United Way, and Lett’s ability to court corporate and private donors, a steady stream of income helped stabilize the agency.
As she worked on fundraising efforts, Letts also worked on public relations efforts to help the community and potential donors understand the importance of its work and its impact on youth in the region.
“Big Brothers Big Sisters helps kids become more confident,” she explained. “One-on-one mentoring makes their relationships with family better, they perform better in school, their confidence improves and they have more hope for the future.”
A four-time Big Sister, Letts has seen first-hand how mentoring works.
“What I’ve learned from being a Big is that a lot of learning can happen while talking and riding in the car,” she said. “I found some of the best talks I had with my Littles took place when picking them up, and asking what is going on in their lives, and then bringing them home and trying to leave them with something to think about. A Big, with the parent supporting the match, can help show them that they can find a path and move forward in life.
“The Littles I was matched with had pretty unstable, stressful home lives — foster care for two of them. All of the kids did graduate from high school and have jobs, which is great. I’ll see them or their parents once in a while around town. We were close while matched.”
Her experience growing up likely provides some compassion for the Littles she sees at work. Her family moved from the Detroit area to Escanaba when she was 14, a difficult transition for any teenager.
“I was an outsider there; it was very difficult because all of the kids had grown up together,” she said.
And becoming a single mom at age 19 added to her understanding.
“Definitely,” she said. “I had walked in their shoes and had empathy for the families.”
Ultimately for Letts, things worked out and she is comfortable now with her life in the region.
“I now have a deep hometown connection to the U.P. and also the Detroit area,” she said. “It would be hard not to live by water.”
And while her off-work life revolves around family, she acknowledged that Big Brothers Big Sisters quickly became a part of her private life, too.
“It became very intertwined in my family life,” she said. “Big Brothers Big Sisters had an accidental positive impact on my own parenting. My youngest son, Jonathan, especially grew up with it. He would come to the bingo hall when he was two years old and sit with the ladies while we set up. As he grew older, he and his friends helped out at fundraisers and were Bigs in high school. My kids and their friends had involvement and exposure to an organization that helped them learn new skills and grow up to be kind, innovative and helpful human beings.”
Meanwhile, Letts continues to balance work life with family life. Her husband Mike, an art education professor at Northern Michigan University, plays guitar with Marquette’s Flat Broke Blues Band; son Jonathon is a musician working in Detroit; and her oldest son, Chris, is a sound engineer in North Carolina currently working with Metallica after having engineered acoustics for names like Paul McCartney, Bob Seger, the Rolling Stones and AC/DC.
Said Letts: “I fit in as a concert goer; I’m lucky to sit in front of the house sometimes.”
Meanwhile she plans to keep her day job.
“Most people see Big Brothers Big Sisters as a nice program, but it is so necessary and could probably be the most powerful volunteer program in the country,” she said. “We want to address the issues kids face in schools — shootings, opiates, bullying. Mentoring can help. The goal is always simple: Get more kids matched.”
To volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Marquette and Alger Counties as a “Big” or in a number of other capacities, or to donate, visit the website at: http://www.bbbsmqt.org/